by Steve Adubato, PhD
Recently, a hospital executive was experiencing tremendous anxiety and nervousness around what she kept calling a “formal” presentation she had to deliver to her board of trustees. When this experienced communicator was asked why she was feeling these negative emotions, she simply said, “I’m great when I am just ‘talking’ to people, but I freeze up when I have to make a ‘formal’ presentation.”
Clearly, the term “formal presentation” generates a range of emotions and insecurities in professionals of all stripes. This term and the way we and our audience perceive it requires further examination.
Q—What is it about the expression “formal presentation” that makes us more nervous and anxious than we would otherwise be?
A—The answer is pretty obvious. Formal implies that the stakes are greater. It implies that we have to present in a fashion that is somewhat outside of our normal character and style. It takes us out of our comfort zone, which is never a good thing when it comes to the way we communicate with others. It also communicates a powerful message about our audience, which is that they are somewhat stiff and less friendly than we would like them to be.
Q—If the term “formal presentation” generates all these negative feelings, then why do so many organizations ask their people to present in this fashion?
A—It is a terrible and unnecessary mistake. Organizational leaders who ask their people to make a “formal” presentation don’t really think through the ramifications of their request. However, if they were to truly empathize with what it would be like to be on the other end, they might use different language. One of a leader’s key functions is to create a positive, supportive environment for his or her team members to communicate effectively.
Q—But don’t certain audiences want a formal presentation?
A—Not really, even if they think they do. What they may want is more structure or more detail. They may even want you to present in a certain time frame. But you can be very informal and extremely conversational and still present in a substantive, concise and compelling fashion. If you ask people would they rather be in a conversation as opposed to a formal lecture, the answer is obvious. We are all more comfortable in conversation than any other communication format. So why not make it an integral part of your organization’s culture?
Q—But, can you really be conversational in a presentation before your board or other prominent group of decision makers?
A—Absolutely. Think about it. This kind of audience is inundated with a series of data dumps and PowerPoint presentations that are filled with numbers, charts and graphs. They have people communicating to them in corporate speak and jargon until they can’t take it any more. Most prominent corporate decision-makers want to be engaged. They want presenters who are passionate and enthusiastic. They want to be in a conversation. Who says you can’t stand up when presenting or sit down if that is more comfortable for you? Simply put, good speech is good conversation and your job as the presenter is to lead and facilitate that conversation.